A dozen cars along the lane; parked doubled-up in the passing places. As I pull over I see dog walkers milling about and my heart sinks a little. I like to walk by myself, but also lost to everyone and everything.
I sit and wait; maybe I think that the people will get back into their cars and leave. I am being unreasonable. Perhaps it is because I have struggled to find this spot.
I have been back and forth over the East coast mainline before parking, bumping over the rails as I missed my turning here, and I can hear the London to Edinburgh trains hurtling along just a mile away. Later, as I cross the ditch paths in the heart of the wood, I look down the clear line of sight and catch a glimpse of a grey, sibilant blur as a couple of hundred souls career Northward.
A few days earlier I had seen this forest from the train myself. It is a little unprepossessing taken at speed, this smear of brown and white woodland. Holme Fen, just South of Peterborough, preserve of dog walkers and hopeful birders, hides its qualities behind a dull, dun wall. Here, before 1850, when it was drained to reclaim the land for agriculture, was Southern England’s largest lake, Whittlesey Mere, a vast, shallow lagoon, home to annual regattas and spectacular water festivals. There are still bodies of water tucked away now, but they’re modest, even missable.
Holme Fen’s qualities have shifted. Strikingly, it is the wood that attracts; this is the largest silver birch woodland in lowland Britain. Stepping into it (across a little bridge, for the entire area is bordered and transected by irrigation channels, we are in flatlands, after all) my selfish worries about quiet and solitude evaporate. The silence falls swiftly, muffling and muting the world after just a dozen steps. Like sudden, heavy snowfall, the acoustic range floats toward the sombre and suppressed. It is extraordinary. The presence of so much white bark is beautiful but a little unsettling. At dawn or dusk this must be peculiar indeed. I make a mental note to try it. Deeper in, and deeper, the paths are boggy and black and churned. It is easy to think I’m being watched, to convince myself the forest has purpose. There is very little birdsong, but eventually I pick up the sound of Robins being chippy and territorial. Sitting on a fallen trunk I can start to pick them out, as they strut around, talking a good fight. Obstreperous little pugilists, they are impossible to dislike. There are oak and a handful of firs mixed in, but it is mostly, overwhelmingly, birch. Some of them are huge, far grander than garden or parkland specimens. Through last year’s leaf fall and assorted detritus, huge swathes of Snowdrops have broken. Sunlight breaks across the floor. It is, with delicate and demure strokes, almost heartbreakingly lovely.
I fancy that in the heart of this place there is a grand, pale Yggdrasil birch, father of the wood. Unfindable, here when the sea finally retreated. Well, no; but there is something. The centre of this place is the lowest spot in Britain, nine feet below sea level. To mark the spot, a couple of years after Whittlesey Mere was drained, a large cast iron column was sunk until its top was flush with the surface. The post, it is rumoured, came from the main hall of the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851.
Now, because of land drainage and farming practice, the peat has shrunk away. So much so that the post projects 12 feet or more above the surface. The lowest spot keeps on getting lower and lower. I place my palm against the cold metal, painted a utilitarian, Victorian green. Like a park railing or a bandstand. I imagine everyone does this. I cannot help but wonder how it got here. By train? Later, I read that King’s Cross was opened at the same time. Transferring this ridiculous object from the halt a mile or so away only then to hide it in the soil, it seems so wonderfully ludicrous and fruitless as to make it even more feasible.
The week before, I’d crossed the Pennines, standing by the roadside, marveling at the snow across the tops and blessed by a dazzling sudden sunburst. A few cold, hard miles from Cross Fell, outside of the the Lake District the highest spot in England, and then, this, this ludicrous spot, all antique sweat and endeavour, passed swiftly and unknowingly by the Great North Road and the East Cost mainline. Purposefully concealed, indirectly uncovered and yet still mostly unseen, in the country’s dip. An extreme point of geography, not really deserving of the accolade, and yet inescapably that is what it is.
I take another route through the forest, back to the car. There are other birds now. Blackbirds yammer their alarms as they skitter through the bracken, but beneath and between that there is a softer, liquid purl, a trilling of something gentler and more intriguing. I will spend longer here next time, and hide myself away. The idea makes me smile. On another scale, there is more to see. In spite of everything I haven’t seen anyone else since I stepped past the treeline. I pick up shouts and barks as I approach the lane.